Living in Chicken Coops: A Guide to Producing Generous People


I found myself thinking about my grandfather the other day. Actually, I find myself thinking about him a lot. He’s been gone a little over ten years now.

Theodore Roosevelt Murray left a mark on the world as big as his name. A former Marine who fought in World War II, he faced life leading with his chin. Growing up, I thought that if for some reason grandpa had to face off against John Wayne … John Wayne was going to be in a world of hurt. Tough guy. Man’s man.

When traveling, he often slept on picnic tables in rest areas and cooked hot dogs on the engine block of his old blue Ford station wagon. He had fists like anvils and a glare that reduced grown men to stammering incoherence.

But the other side of my grandfather that impressed me even more was his faith. Ted Murray was devout. He not only cared deeply about his faith, he actually lived his life as though his faith mattered more than anything else in the world. Sell everything you own and give it to the poor?

Yeah. He and my grandmother did that. Without knowing any Spanish, they packed up a few things and drove down to Mexico to build a home to raise abandoned children. And the year that it took them to build that children’s home they spent living in a renovated chicken coop.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Problem With Assuming That It’s the Millennials’ Fault for Abandoning Religion

Exit Sign

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” — all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that — with the application of a little intellectual candlepower — it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Personal Responsibility and Charitable Giving Aren’t Enough

Food Stamps (b&w)

We’ve got a problem in the church that we can’t quite get a handle on, and it has to do with charity. Who gets it? and Who gives it?

Christians tend to argue  most heatedly about the role of government—personal or charitable responsibility vs. governmental responsibility. Conservative Christians often argue that any commands Jesus made concerning justice and the compassionate care of other human beings ought to be expressed not primarily through the government, but through the church. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, generally view government as an important part of the solution in manifesting the justice and compassion commanded by Jesus. I’d like to take a look at the conservative argument, for a moment.

Conservative Christians tend to emphasize personal responsibility as the primary locus of Christian morality. That is to say, Christians are first of all responsible for themselves–”If you are travelling [sic.] with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” Of paramount importance here is the state of one’s soul. After having secured your own soul, you are then free to “assist the other person.”

On a conservative reading of scripture, the assistance one provides ought to come through individuals, or at least through charitable organizations, preferably those associated with the church. Jesus, it is often pointed out, didn’t command his followers to prop up governmental institutions (even humanitarian ones) as a way of establishing justice and compassion. These kinds of good works are best left to those who answer first and only to God. (Of course, it should be pointed out that Jesus was Jewish, which carried with it an implicit understanding that governmental and religious responsibility were indistinguishable from one another–in ways that don’t admit of a modern American analog.)

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why “The First Shall Be Last” Is a Practical Economic Obligation

Outstretched hand 2

“According to tzedakah, the people who have the means to help others, the people whose ability to choose what they want to do and with whom they want to do it it tracks the amount of money they have at their disposal, are the ones who have the least amount of choice when it comes to giving. That is to say, in the pursuit of justice the more you have, the less choice you have about giving.”

Derek Penwell on Why “The First Shall Be Last” Is a Practical Economic Obligation — [D]mergent

Fake It Till You Make It: Reflections on Congregational Awkwardness


I’m an introvert by temperament. According to the well-worn (at least among seminary types) personality inventory, that means I find energy in being alone. Interacting with other people, on the other hand, sucks energy from me.

Being an introvert, on this account of personality types, does not necessarily equate to shyness. Shyness has to do with feelings of awkwardness around other people, while introversion has to do with one’s temperamental preference for the inner-world.

But I’m shy, too. My default response to new situations and new people is awkwardness.

Being introverted and shy, as you might imagine, is a difficult combination when it comes to my line of work. Ministry requires me to be around people more than I would normally choose, if the choice depended upon my natural inclinations. In fact, in seminary the Pastoral Care professor who reviewed my Meyers-Briggs type said, “Derek, less than one percent of ministers have your personality type. So, if you want to go through with this, you have to be aware that ministry is always going to be difficult for you.” Because, you know, people.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Never Let the Guy with the Broom Decide How Many Elephants Can Be in the Parade

The problem isn’t just that good ideas are always in danger of being shot down. In an unhealthy system good ideas often don’t see the light of day because everybody knows up front that bringing them up is a waste of time. I would wager that serial blockers have killed ten times more ideas in people’s heads than they’ve killed on the floor of meetings—just because everybody is convinced that bringing up an idea would be a waste of time, or because it would cause World War III . . . 

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Confessions of a Fraud: The Silence that Reveals Me to Myself

Scrub Tree (rev)

I woke up this morning, and when I turned over and looked at the alarm clock, I knew the night’s sleep would be stolen from me. My mind raced like an undernourished Chihuahua on crack.

I staggered out of bed, and here I sit at the computer.

Life is suffering—at least that’s what the Buddha said is the first noble truth. In other words, if you don’t know anything else, the one thing you know (even if you don’t know it) is that at the heart of the human experience something is goofed up.

My students often get hung up on the word suffering, because to say that life is suffering strikes them as too morose. “I can see the sunrise. I sing songs. I love. Life isn’t all, or even primarily, suffering.”

But by suffering the Buddha didn’t just mean the kind of agony you experience when you hit your finger really hard with a hammer (which I did one summer when I was framing houses during seminary, and holy crap!) or when you find out that your blind date only knows how to talk about conspiracy theories concerning one wold governments run by intelligent cyborgs or the Illuminati … or both.

Dukkha, the Pali word for suffering, means more than just pain; it means stress, or disturbance, or dislocation, or the nagging feeling—often beneath the threshold of awareness—that something isn’t right.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . . 

It’s Time for Progressive Christians to Take a Stand for Marriage Equality

It’s time for progressive Christians to take a stand. With same-gender marriage once again making headlines, this time in Indiana and Oklahoma, it’s time that Christians in favor of making a way for people to marry whom they want to stand up and let their voices be heard.

It’s time.

Clearly, the ground on which we currently stand as a society has shifted with regard to the issue of same-gender marriage. As of this writing, 17 states (Utah and Oklahoma pending) now allow same-gender marriage. I’d like to see that number get increasingly larger.

It’s a justice issue.1 There are people whom God loves who are being deprived of the opportunity to spend their lives with the ones they love.

How, though? I mean, we’re normal people struggling to make it to the next paycheck. Most folks don’t have the kind of power necessary to influence the culture on a grand scale — at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

And we liberal religious folks have too often ceded the cultural playing field to fundamentalist activists, who’ve organized themselves for the purposes of advocacy. Because we don’t want people to think that we’re those kind of Christians, we’ve tended to treat political issues as something better left to “secular” advocacy groups.

And, frankly, it’s understandable. Because the fundamentalists have been so loud, we progressive Christians seem to want to cultivate a contrast: They will know we are liberal by our… Volvos and subdued rhetoric.

But I think that’s a crock.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Killing Church Management (Part 2): The Perils of Following from in Front


Last week, I talked about leading from in front —that vestigial assumption about leadership that comes to us from the industrial economy. Leading from in front assumes that leadership and management are synonyms, that what characterizes good leaders is an ability to have good ideas, and then get other people to help realize those ideas faster and cheaper than anyone else.

I argued that in a connection economy—preoccupied as it is not with mass-production, but with creating for smaller, more localized markets—the form of leadership necessary is leading from behind. Leading from behind, I suggested, attempts to liberate the creativity in others, providing permission and resources so that others can produce interesting things.

Today, I want to talk about something I consider a simulacrum of leadership, one that, without care, might be mistaken for leading from behind—but most certainly is not.

I knew a minister once whose default leadership style wasn’t leading from in front. It wasn’t even leading from behind. He followed from in front.

He refused to do anything until he was certain that the whole congregation was behind him. Of course, he called it “consensus building.”

The truth of it was that he found new ideas vaguely threatening, always afraid that any action might blow up in his face.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .